Jewish World Review March 3, 2004 / 10 Adar, 5764
Backgrounder: Haiti has been a mess since the time of Thomas Jefferson
Haiti is a mess. There is nothing new about this. Haiti has been a mess
since the time of Thomas Jefferson. Once known as the "Pearl of the
Antilles," Haiti is now by far the poorest nation in the Caribbean.
Haitians like to blame the mess they are in on foreigners. But this is
untrue. Except for the period 1915-1934 (about which more below), Haiti has
been ruled almost always badly by Haitians since 1804.
France did not give up Haiti willingly. The Pearl of the Antilles was
wrested from its grasp by Francois Dominque Toussaint L'Overture, who
beginning in 1791, led the greatest slave revolt in history. A brilliant
general, Toussaint L'Overture routed French forces, and also a British army,
which tried to pick up where the French left off.
Called the George Washington of Haiti, L'Overture who believed in liberty
and democracy might have proved to be so, had French treachery not
prevailed where French arms could not. Arrested by the French when he
attended a conference under a flag of truce, L'Overture was locked up in a
fortress in the Alps by the emperor Napoleon.
L'Overture was succeeded by Jean-Jacques Dessalines, who shared his military
skill, but not his devotion to democracy. Dessalines won independence from
France in 1804, and declared himself governor-general for life. This turned
out to be less than two years. Dessalines was murdered by political rivals
in 1806, establishing a pattern which has continued to this day. Haiti has
had a dizzying succession of presidents, most of whose terms were cut short
by assassination or coups de etat, of which there now have been 33.
Haiti's misery was interrupted only in the period 1915-1934, when Haiti was governed, in effect, by the U.S. Marines. President Wilson ordered intervention to prevent chaos after 7 Haitian presidents had been overthrown in 7 years.
"The U.S. administrators ran the country fairly and efficiently, and by the
time they left they could tick off a long list of achievements: 1,000 miles
of roads and 210 bridges built, 9 major airfields, 1,250 miles of telephone
lines, 82 miles of irrigation canals, 11 modern hospitals, 147 rural
clinics," wrote Max Boot in the Nov. 2003 issue of Current History.
Things went to Hell after the Americans left, with Haitians falling under
the control of the dictators Duvalier, father and son, who continued the
practice of Haitian rulers of looting the country for personal gain.
"Baby Doc" Duvalier, under pressure from the Reagan administration, fled the
country in 1986, and in 1990 Haiti had the closest thing it's ever had to a
fair election. The winner was Jean Baptiste Aristide, a Marxist and
renegade Catholic priest. But Aristide was ousted a year later in a coup
led by his security chief.
In 1994, President Clinton sent 20,000 U.S. troops to Haiti to restore
Aristide to power. The Americans built roads, clinics, etc., but after U.S.
troops left in 1996, Aristide appointed his thugs to head the
American-trained police, used them to murder political enemies, and pocketed
much of the $2.6 billion in economic aid the U.S. sent.
Aristide was re-elected in rigged elections in 2000 (voter turnout was only
5 percent, according to the Council on Foreign Relations). But high-handed
tactics and worsening conditions stripped him of popularity. The
handwriting was on the wall for Aristide when the Cannibal Army, a gang of
thugs once allied with him, switched sides after their leader was murdered,
they think on Aristide's orders.
With the Cannibal Army joining the democratic opposition, what remains of
the Haitian business community, and supporters of the former dictatorship
against him, the tide against Aristide was irresistable. At the end, he had
more support among Democrats in the United States than he did among
Now Aristide is in exile, the Marines (along with French and Canadian
troops) are back in Port au Prince, and the natives are hopeful.
"We are all awaiting the American soldiers to come and provide security from
the chimeres (Aristide thugs named after a fire-breathing monster in Haitian
folklore) and take their big guns away," Bab St. Croix, an agronomy student,
told the Christian Science Monitor. "Aristide took everything for himself,
but now maybe we can make Haiti better."
No one knows how long the Marines will be in Haiti this time, or how difficult will be the task of restoring order. Given the history of the Marines, they will make things better. Given the history of Haiti, it won't last long.
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